Sonam Kapoor: “I want Pad Man to remove the stigma that is attached to periods”
Plus, the January cover star on inclusiveness, gender equality and LGBTQ rights
Inclusiveness, gender equality and LGBTQ rights are on Sonam Kapoor’s wish list for 2018. In a revealing conversation with Imran Amed, the fashion arbiter urges us on the importance of optimism in today’s world.
Imran Amed: Optimism is an interesting topic. It doesn’t feel very optimistic in the world at the moment, does it?
Sonam Kapoor: Well, when the world goes through hard times, the best dialogue starts, wonderful art comes out of it—whether that’s through film or literature—the dialogue is more relevant, and it propagates some sort of change. So, as an artist, it’s the moment that we can actually thrive in and have the best sort of work come out of. It’s sad, but that’s the truth.
IA: Let’s talk about some of the things that you’re optimistic about, then.
SK: I’m really optimistic about all this dialogue about female empowerment, and what’s going on in terms of people speaking up for what they deserve, whether it’s the way they have been treated at work, equal pay for equal opportunity, women trying to have their voices heard louder, the self-worth that they are discovering. I think that’s something that we should be really positive about because for all these years, especially in our part of the world, in Asia and the Middle-East, women have not had much of a voice. I’m optimistic about the kinds of films that are doing well in India right now, at least the films that I have been part of. They’re not easy films, the so-called ‘masala entertainers’ that usually do well in India. The audience is more intelligent than we give them credit for.
IA: You talk about women in Asia and the Middle-East speaking up more now. But it’s also a global phenomenon.
SK: Absolutely, and that’s everywhere. The world has become so small that if a movement starts, it’s like a house of cards. It starts tumbling, and it’s amazing that it’s not only in the West, it’s everywhere. There are these pockets of women and pockets of movements that are happening, where people are talking about things that are relevant and give them a sense of self. It’s so important that this has started because men in power have a tendency—it’s almost like divide and rule, right? How do you do that? First, it’s about pitting one woman against the other. The one thing that’s coming off it is that women are standing together instead of against each other. Subliminally and subconsciously, we have a tendency to compete with each other. Just because of the way we have been culturally and consciously told—at least in India and the Middle-East—there has been a competitive spirit that has been instilled in us.
IA: Yes, I saw that Instagram post that you put up from that film you were working on with Kareena Kapoor Khan, where you said to the media, “Stop trying to make it look like we’re against each other all the time.” Why do you think the media does that?
SK: It makes [for] good copy. Any sort of friction or drama is good copy. It’s just a thing with the media, it’s the way the world thinks—that two women can’t get along. That they compete with each other, or they can’t be friends, or they vie for the same man’s attention. You won’t ever have stories about two men not getting along. Whether it’s in the West or in India or anywhere else. So, when we’re trying to change that perception, which is very hard to do because that’s how we’ve all grown up, that’s what the stories have been.
IA: That’s why it’s so powerful to see all these women banding together. Did you read Salma Hayek’s recent op-ed about Harvey Weinstein in The New York Times?
SK: It was so scary. It’s bullying on another level. It’s so strange, but it’s something that you expect. It’s almost like… I remember when I worked with this one director, the amount he traumatised me… I thought it was going to make me work better.
IA: What do you mean?
SK: It’s just the way we have been taught. Down the years, we have been told that the opportunities that you have been given have to be hard won, and there’s always a man who is seen as someone you aspire to be like or want approval from. And you need to gain that approval. It’s very weird, sick… and you make a lot of excuses for men in power.
IA: What happens now in Bollywood and in Hollywood with this inherent power structure between men and women? Will we see more women directors, for example? Will women eve be able to take on some of these roles?
SK: I’m telling you, it’s going to be very, very slow. It’s about female chefs, female directors, female producers, female editors, female politicians. It’s scary as hell that America still hasn’t had a woman as president. Whereas India has had a female prime minister, Pakistan has had a female prime minister, for God’s sake!
IA: But you’re still optimistic about it?
SK: I am optimistic about it. You need to be optimistic about it. You have to be. I’m very lucky and very privileged because the kind of upbringing I got from my parents has been extremely progressive. Now that I see it, it seems progressive compared to a lot of people, but it was normal for me. I knew what being a feminist is at 12 or 13. I knew I’ve always got equal opportunity. I was never told that because you’re a girl, you can’t do something. I never knew the difference till I joined the ‘real world.
IA: It seems like you’ve always worked on films that have strong female stories. The one that touched me alot was Neerja (2016). And now, you have another film coming out soon, called Pad Man. Why is it that you’re drawn to these kinds of films?
SK: Being a practicing Hindu, we worship Lakshmi, Saraswati, and we call India “Mother India”. We worship goddesses and yet we don’t have that much respect for women. [That] respect should be ingrained. To understand that there is a female power in all of us, men and women, and to understand that that’s the strongest part of you. So to not give a woman that respect, and to not speak about issues related to women, to not show a woman—an ordinary girl like Neerja—who was 22, not even 23 years old… it’s a real story. She rose to the occasion and did something extraordinary… it is a fantastic and aspirational story that had to be told. And we don’t learn about her in school. She was the first female and the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra, but I didn’t know about her. I didn’t learn about her in school.
IA: People really responded to that film; it was a huge success.
SK: It was. To understand what it said, was that the people in India are ready for something like this. We need to stop thinking that they’re not intelligent, that they won’t receive this kind of film or story or message. Neerja had a profound effect on me and I wanted to take some time out after it. I felt that the next film I signed had to also count for something. R Balki is a film-maker that I really respect, and he came to me with Pad Man. It is a true story that was actually researched and written by Twinkle Khanna, about this man called Arunachalam Muruganantham. He was someone who made sanitary napkins because he realised that his wife was using dirty cloth during her period. He wasn’t an educated man, but he says, “I wouldn’t clean my bike with this cloth, how can she use it down there during her period?” He couldn’t understand why people weren’t talking about it, and couldn’t understand the stigma attached to it.
IA: So what did he do?
SK: He came up with three different machines that created sanitary napkins for much cheaper so that they would be available to every woman in India. Because sanitary napkins and tampons are very highly taxed, very expensive, and almost 60 per cent of [Indian] women still don’t have access to them.
IA: What do you hope people will take away from this film?
SK: The stigma that is attached to getting your period. In India, if you get your period, you can’t go into a temple, you can’t go into a kitchen, some women are not allowed to stay at home. They have to sleep outside because they are considered “unclean”.
IA: Even when it’s a perfectly natural and normal thing.
SK: They aren’t allowed to wash the clothes that they wear and their underwear in the same place. They have to walk very far away from their house to use the restroom. So it’s just a very weird stigma..
IA: So, the movie will play well in a small village somewhere?
SK: We hope so! Because it’s funny and it’s got Akshay Kumar playing the lead. He’s a very commercial actor, and people will go and watch his films because of that. I play a role that I’m very excited for, but I can’t speak about it too much. You should watch the movie, it’s fun! Balki didn’t want it to be verbose, or one of those films that we watch in school that are really boring and educational.
IA: Whenever I come to India, I always feel a sense of optimism, because obviously the economy is growing, the cities are developing, the country is becoming urbanised, the middle class is growing. But some of it still feels archaic, especially when it comes to the rights of women and minority groups. India is also starting to develop a reputation for widespread rape culture. It’s a shame because for people who don’t visit India, and don’t see all the progress and change, the image that is being projected of the country abroad is often of these terrible incidents that happen all over the country.
SK: They’re not wrong, unfortunately. Like I said, it’s all about educating people. It’s the way men and women are brought up. It’s up to a mother, the way that she brings up her son or daughter. She has to give worth and respect to her child, and explain to her son. It’s about how a husband or a father treats his wife in front of them. There’s a lot of ignorance. So it has to start in a family. That’s why I’m trying my best to do those kinds of films, where women are shown a lot of respect.
IA: So, finally, what are your three wishes for 2018?
SK: I have so many wishes! More women in power, number one. Number two, I wish the world to see India in a better light. And for that, India needs to pull up its socks when it comes to inclusiveness. India is supposed to be a liberal and inclusive country, culturally and historically. That is why the Constitution was made in a certain way. But I find that there is a lot of divisive politics at play, and I want that to go away. I work a lot for LGBTQ rights and that’s something that I’m really passionate about. So those are the three things: female empowerment, LGBTQ rights, and inclusiveness.
IA: And a better image of India in the world.
SK: That’s four wishes!
Lace dress, Rs, 2,56,019, Chloe. 18k rose gold and diamond earrings, price on request, Chopard. Gold and diamond ring, Kapoor's own.
Photographs: John-Paul Pietrus
Styling: Malini Banerji
Hair: Keiichiro Hirano/Anima Creatives
Make-Up: Ruby Hammer/Angeli & Co
Manicure: Cherrie Snow
Production: Ashumi Sanghvi/Mad Productions
Assisted By: Divya Gursahani and Raghav Tibrewal (Styling), Elinor Langley (Production)